Men I Have Painted/George Meredith
THERE is a pretty old inn at Burford Bridge where, I believe, Keats wrote the line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," and calling it out of the window to his friend Leigh Hunt, who was lying on the grass in the sun, Hunt called back, "That will live for ever."
Poor Keats! Poor Poe! With what riches they endowed a thoughtless and ungrateful world! Can it be much of a consolation to their spirits to know that a wealth of sentiment is now showered upon the tombs that hold their once hungering and starved bodies? What law of chance governs rewards and punishments? Who can explain the affluence of a Peter Paul Rubens, a Velasquez, or a Benjamin West, and the poverty of a Rembrandt, a Franz Hals, and a Gilbert Stuart? An Alma Tadema may live in a palace with a golden stair, while a Mathew Maris shades the smoking oil-lamp, that lights his humble room, with a newspaper.
Not far from the inn on the side of Box Hill the author of The Egoist lived—lived and suffered, though he did not die young—in a small Georgian house of ugly, commonplace design, approached through a flowerless front garden hemmed in on all sides by a great box hedge that frowned gloomily down upon bewildered visitors.
It would be idle to attempt to demonstrate that passions are allayed by beautiful surroundings; for crime is as
prevalent in the palace as in the hut; but as romancers, especially French writers, frequently lay the scene of a tragedy in an isolated and forsaken-looking dwelling of forbidding aspect, so the close student of the psychology of the passionate or criminal mind may find his reveries disturbed by the contemplation of flowering honeysuckle, or rose, or sweet-scented lavender, or any innocent and beautiful fact of Nature that steals upon the inner contemplation of a direful plot based upon human misery.
Sin may be simple and sweet and forgivable, or it may be bitter and remorseful; and when the theme is of the latter kind, the romancer is no Oliver Goldsmith, singing of lowing kine and daisy-besprinkled meadows, but a Hardy or a Meredith devoted to introspection and the causes of human imperfections. Do such men love beauty, or even know it when they see it? Beauty is superficial: a sentiment lies beneath the surface, has to be searched for, is pricked into being. An analysis of the sentiment aroused by the emotion of beauty is a very different thing from the simple contemplation of beauty.
That George Meredith was filled with the emotion of beauty is manifest in his prose and his verse. Love of colour, form, harmony and contrast; a knowledge of Nature and Nature's art speak everywhere in his books. Sunrise and sunset thrilled him through and through, and he gave joyous utterance to a flood of words descriptive of the moving images that the ever-changing cloud-forms suggested to his imagination.
Yet we expect some expression of the artist's inner life in his home or his workshop; and that Swinburne, the sensuous singer of amatory graces, should have lived in a mean, bourgeois, terraced house in Putney, with his watch-dog, Watts Dunton, is much more incomprehensible than that Meredith, who held the palm among contemporary English prose writers, should have hidden himself in a prosaic cottage at Box Hill.
Yet Burford Bridge has its associations; and here I was sent, by my friend Mr. Edward H. Coates, to paint a portrait of the novelist most beloved by the cognoscenti of America, for the portrait gallery of the Pennsylvania Academy. "We must have Meredith," wrote Mr. Coates, "for we all love his books."
Meredith was recovering from the shock of a fall that had broken his ankle, and I found him resting his foot upon a chair as he half reclined in another. He was not happy in his mind. The long convalescence and confinement in the house vexed him; the social conditions of the day—what would he have thought of this day?—the gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth, the growing unrest of the people, weighed upon him. He wrote letters to the newspapers about it all, but he offered no remedy. He talked about America, about Philadelphia, and recalled Weir Mitchell and his books. And as he talked, I studied him, his colour, his expression, and his general characteristics.
The inn where I stayed was bright and sunny, and the rooms very comfortable; so I lingered long to see more of the recluse, for so he seemed, shut in, as it were, behind the hedges that hid him from the road and the passing people—like Tennyson, in his later life, concealed from view in his hidden gardens at Freshwater. Meredith followed the example of other great thinkers who become shy in their old age and withdraw from the world. There are men who resent the change from strength to weakness, from the ruddy glow of health in firm and solid cheeks to the pallor and the wan, frail look of decaying faculties. Swinburne put the matter tersely by saying he was not young enough to be beautiful and not old enough to be picturesque, when he refused to sit for his portrait. So few know when the picturesqueness begins, and sometimes it never comes at all—it is frequently a question of hair!
At last I obtained material enough to make the portrait, and the work was accomplished to the satisfaction of the President of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and now hangs in the Historic Portrait Collection of that institution.